Morgan (Geena Davis) is a wanted woman. The year is 1668 and she is in the Caribbean where her pirate father Black Harry (Harris Yulin) has been in conflict with his brother, another pirate named Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Events have come to a head when Harry has been captured by Dawg in the hope that he will relinquish the location of a treasure trove hidden somewhere on an island in the region, but still he will not admit he knows. Morgan races to the scene on horseback, then in a rowing boat, just in time to reach Dawg's ship where her father is being dropped over the side, tied to the anchor; she grabs him and is dragged down into the depths where she saws at the rope with her knife, then pulls him back to the surface. But is she too late?
I'll clear that up straight away, yes she is, but just in time to hear from Harry as he lies expiring in a cave that he does indeed know where the treasure is, and there's a map tattooed on his scalp that will show her at least part of the way there. Now, shaving your father’s head and then slicing his scalp off might not be the most pleasant methods for a fortune, indeed it's absolutely disgusting, but you imagine Carolco, the studio that backed Cutthroat Island, would have been happy to do so to all of their fathers if it meant they could have remained in business: it was not to be as this production sank it with all hands. There are those who observed it was likely to go under anyway, but this can only have hastened its demise with great alacrity.
The film was nothing short of a disaster, with problem following crisis throughout its making, most notably the loss of its star Michael Douglas shortly before it was supposed to commence shooting. His replacement was Matthew Modine, who may be a capable actor but there can't have been many audiences thinking "Oh boy, I must see the new Matthew Modine movie!", even in the nineteen-nineties, which may explain why his character, despite being second billed, was essentially the sidekick to Geena Davis, who by no coincidence was director Renny Harlin's wife (they were married during the making of this). It was clear that her role had been expanded to not be the romantic second banana as originally intended.
Now, this could have been a clever twist on the pirate movie genre, which heaven knows by 1995 truly needed it after a string of abortive tries at reviving it since its heyday of Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster, but the tone was not a pleasing one. Where those classics had been bright, breezy and witty swashbucklers with a moral centre, here things happened for the hell of it and the humour overbearingly crass, with Morgan (named after Morgan the Pirate, a man?) not only doing revolting things to her father (that at least was off screen) but keeping the severed pate down the front of her pants, because nothing says respecting the deceased like that. This was one of many missteps that appeared to be taking their cue from the "ew" moments for families in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Couple that to a design that was undeniably impressive in its scale and intricacy yet still managed to be oddly unconvincing in a theme park sort of manner, and the cast had a lot of heavy lifting to do.
Often literally as Harlin was keen to have as many of them do their own stunts as possible, with the assistance of a little special effects trickery: Davis's roll through the window and onto the seat of a carriage was a nice bit of business, for instance. But the issue was that as far as character went, take away the edgy, nasty elements and you had too much taken from stock - fair enough, know the history of what you were harking back to, and include recognisable aspects so that the audience knew what they were getting, but add a dash of originality that did not involve something that made them wrinkle their noses. Patrick Malahide alone, as the scheming Governor, made something more interesting out of these slim thespian pickings, and he had a nice interplay with his henchman Angus Wright, but they were hardly in the over two hour running time, relatively speaking, whereas the chemistry-free Davis and Modine and an enthusiastic but deadening Langella took the lion's share of screen time and were lost in the glorious scenery and exploding pirate ships and whatnot. For a film that was reportedly the biggest money loser of all time (over a hundred million dollars wasted), there was a curiosity factor involved, but as an experience? Not as smart as they would have liked it to be. Music by John Debney.